Chicago Bulls

Emotional setting for Isaiah Thomas in wake of sister's death

Emotional setting for Isaiah Thomas in wake of sister's death

The emotion was palpable when Isaiah Thomas took the floor with his Celtics teammates for Game 1 of their playoff series with the Bulls at TD Garden in the wake of his sister’s death just 24 hours earlier.

Whether he was fighting back tears in the warm-ups or looking exhausted on the sidelines after an emotional day, there wasn’t a moment where you didn’t realize Thomas was dealing with real life instead of just the opener of a playoff series.

Having Jimmy Butler guard him for long stretches pales in comparison to the shocking, tragic news of his sister’s death in a car accident in Washington early Saturday morning.

Nobody knows how he made the decision to play, or how he felt when the roar of the Garden crowd reached deafening decibels when his name was introduced in the starting lineup, but from his eyes to his feet the signs were there of a man feeling powerless in an environment that relies on him being powerful.

Thomas’ shoes had his sister’s name, Chyna, written in black marker along with “I love you” on another part of his shoe. When a moment of silence for Thomas was announced before the national anthem, the big brother’s eyes turned red as the best reality show sports can offer provided a reality far too real and perhaps, slightly intrusive for the situation.

“Obviously, it's tragic circumstances that he and his family are going through right now. Our thoughts are first and foremost with all of them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think his intention is to play. We talked a little bit last night and then again today about as he goes through it and feels like he needs to not, then whatever he wants.”

“I think one of the things I've learned having been through situations in the past is there's really no right or wrong answers. Whatever is right for him. That's what we've encouraged him and he's really hurting. It's a tough situation.”

Stevens took the appropriate tone and all others followed suit, as players with varying degrees of relationship with Thomas were asked how to deal with approaching him or competing against him, as if there’s a manual to this.

“Isaiah’s a great teammate, Isaiah’s a great husband, a great father,” Stevens said. “A great guy, son and brother. I think ultimately we just all try to do our part and let him know we’re thinking about him and anything we can all do to help, we do. We’re a family and this particular situation with his family takes precedence over everything that’s going on. We’re here for him if he needs us.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg echoed Stevens’ sentiments.

“You know, obviously it's a horrible tragedy,” said Hoiberg before the game. “I know I speak on behalf of the entire organization when I say we offer our thoughts and prayers to Isaiah and the entire Thomas family. He just seems like such a great kid, obviously he's one of the great competitors that we have in our league. He seems like such a good kid. And it's just awful, what happened. So again, our thoughts and prayers are with Isaiah during this tough time.”

Having been embraced by the Boston fans for his big plays and bigger swagger during his short time, Stevens knew the support would be overwhelming.

“I don’t think there’s any question people have a great affinity for him. Even in my short time here, you see the really tough things that happen, the community really rallies around,” Stevens said. “You can already feel that. You can already feel, as I was in church this morning, people were coming up to me and wanted to know how he was doing and all talking about it. When you get here, that’s all people talk about. It’s gonna be really emotional but that’s part of what makes this place really special, is they get it and they really appreciate Isaiah and I know Isaiah really appreciates everybody here.”

The box score suggests that his 31 points were of his usual nature but seeing him through the game says otherwise. At times, he looked close to passing out, lifted up only by the Garden crowd that cheered his every move when he touched the ball to start the game. When Avery Bradley hugged him after an early run, he held him a little tighter, a little longer.

“Isaiah, to me, he’s family. We grew up in the same area,” Bradley said. “I know it’s tough for him. It says a lot about him. He’s a true competitor. I know tonight he was playing for his sister.”

When he scored 13 points in the first quarter, and then took over a stretch in third where he got two consecutive three-point plays, it seemed as if he would lift the Celtics to a magical ending.

But even if he had, the reality would never leave him, and it won’t leave him as the process of dealing with such a loss is only just beginning.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls the worst team in NBA?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls the worst team in NBA?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Shepkowski (670 The Score) and Dan Cahill (Chicago Sun-Times) join Kap on the panel. Jake Arrieta will return to the rotation to face the Brewers. Can he recapture his pre-injury form? Mike Glennon gets another start Sunday but should he get the hook if he struggles again?

Plus, the guys discuss the one metric that says the Bulls are the worst team in the NBA.

A 'woke' Doug Collins returns to provoke thought — and we'll find out who's asleep in Bulls' front office

A 'woke' Doug Collins returns to provoke thought — and we'll find out who's asleep in Bulls' front office

Doug Collins made it clear, that his return to the Bulls organization won’t result in a return to the sidelines as head coach, meaning Fred Hoiberg has nothing to worry about in the way of looking over his shoulder.

What Collins did admit, though, is he’s back with the Bulls to provoke thought. Anyone who’s listened to Collins as a broadcaster for ESPN or Turner Sports, or talked to him in any basketball capacity, knows he’s not only a hoops lifer but also someone who can have strong opinions, capable of quick dissection of a complex picture in a moment’s notice.

“I’m not here to be a decision-maker. I want to provoke thought. My mind is very active,” Collins said Tuesday afternoon at the Advocate Center. “And I think to get into a room and to bounce ideas off each other or whatever, at the end of the day, Gar, Michael, Jerry, Pax will make those decisions. The beauty of it is is that when there’s a level of trust when you’re talking about things, you can speak openly and honestly with people knowing the only thing that matters is that whatever happens is the best for the franchise.”

Announcing Collins as a senior advisor to executive vice president John Paxson adds another voice to the Bulls’ braintrust and is probably an admission this rebuild will require more than what the Bulls already have, be it in terms of connections, observation and even innovation.

Collins’ connection to Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf, a growing relationship with Michael Reinsdorf and ability to relate with Hoiberg due to the misery of coaching should align a front office to the floor in ways that has been in doubt for the past several seasons.

“Given Jerry's relationship and my relationship with Doug over the years, we thought, hey, let's see if maybe this isn't a good time for Doug to come back into the fold,” Paxson said. “So we approached him and it was very casual, no expectations other than he's been a friend of ours for so long. But the more we kind of dug into the prospects of this and what it means, the more we kept asking ourselves, why wouldn't we do this?”

Collins made it clear he won’t be giving up his family life, as he already has residence in Chicago and his son Chris is coaching Northwestern and a son-in-law coaching a high school team outside Philadelphia.

“The hours and the time commitment that Fred Hoiberg puts in on a day and the energy that he spends and being on the road and being away from his family,” Collins said. “(This) worked perfectly in my schedule when I talked to Pax that I could be a part of something special, the Chicago Bulls, and I love the Chicago Bulls.”

His energy and passion can light up a room, and though he tried his best to say that’s died down at age 66, claiming “I can sit and do a crossword puzzle for three hours now”, people wired like Collins don’t lose their fervor for the game.

“I think there’s this feeling that I’m a guy who’s always on and fired up,” Collins said.

But that fire and passion and presumably a willingness to be uncompromising with the truth should be something that’s welcome inside the Advocate Center. In addition to his acumen, one of Collins’ greatest strengths is his fervor, and it shouldn’t be scaled back.

That’s not how rebuilds work successfully. Lines have to be crossed and people have to be made uncomfortable in their line of thinking, even if it’s Paxson or Hoiberg or general manager Gar Forman.

It’s not hard to see the Bulls following the thinking of the Golden State Warriors when they added Jerry West in an advisory role years ago, resulting in several key moves being made, most notably West’s objection to Klay Thompson being traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love before Love was eventually moved to Cleveland.

West’s guidance played a part in the Warriors’ upward trajectory to championship status, and he hopes to have a similar affect with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Comparing West with Collins on its face is a bit unfair, considering West’s experience as an executive and championship pedigree dating back to his days with the Lakers.

At least with West, he’s not trying to convince anyone he isn’t anything but a tortured basketball soul at age 79. Collins reminded everyone he’s a grandfather of five and at a spry 66, West would call Collins a “spring chicken.”

What Collins can bring is a keen eye for observation, and expecting him to be a passive personality doesn’t quite seem right, especially leaving the cushy job at ESPN that allowed him maximum exposure and a schedule to his liking.

Perhaps the way Collins left the NBA, with a massive gambit in Philadelphia falling flat when Andrew Bynum’s knees rendered him useless and sending the 76ers franchise into “The Process,” left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

Maybe his competitive juices got him going again and the broadcast booth just wasn’t cutting it, along with having a front seat to the injury that changed the course of the Bulls franchise when Derrick Rose tore his ACL in 2012 against Collins’ 76ers.

Maybe the crossword puzzles just couldn’t get it done anymore. After all, the man once cried on the sidelines as his Detroit Pistons beat the Bulls in a regular-season game in 1997. Curbing that passion would be a disservice.

“See how things quickly change? The NBA is cyclical now,” Collins said. “Other than the San Antonio Spurs, over the last 20 years, every elite franchise has gone through this moment. And so now what you got to do, you got to dig yourself back up.

“We got to start doing all the things that are necessary to gain assets day by day, to put all the work, so we’re going to give ourself a chance, when we continue to get better players and more talent, that you’re going to win more basketball games.”

Collins said he has old-school values, all while being caught up with the times that he called himself “woke” as a nod to the current culture.

If he truly is, we’ll also find out who’s asleep in the front office, in desperate need a loud wake-up call.